Keeping the Flame of Democracy Alive

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By 2017-07-09

By Ranga Chandrarathne
Ceylon today Mosaic

Senior Indian journalist Geetha Seshu explores a myriad of issues that today's media has to deal with in a rapidly changing socio-cultural and political environment. Journalists across the region have to work in an increasingly hostile environment, often combating an engulfing culture of impunity and also protecting the cardinal ethics of journalism.

Q: You are an independent journalist with a special interest in reporting and analyzing media issues in particular freedom of expression, gender, media ethics and the working conditions of journalists. How would you assess the current socio-political situation in India in terms of improving freedom of expression, gender equality and empowering the working journalists to carry on their work without fear or impediment?

At the moment, the situation seems grim. Far more than in the past. There are three principal areas of tension for freedom of expression in India. First, from the State in terms of the laws that curb free speech, the restrictions imposed by the government on television channels or news publications, internet blockades and policies that continue to curb news on community radio for instance. Second, attacks by non-state actors, like vigilante groups, criminal and mafia gangs who file false defamation and other cases, attack journalists en masse or pick on individual journalists for their investigative reports. Third, the media implosion which has severely compromised journalism and rendered working journalists insecure and vulnerable to the vagaries of media owners who have indulged in rapid expansion without proper management, dubious financial investments by political and business groups into the media and who have further completely compromised ethics in journalism with paid news and PR. In this scenario, reporting on marginalized groups or issues like gender equality, violence against women, caste oppression, labour rights, the agrarian crisis, environmental norms destroyed for mega and multi-crore so-called development projects...all of this is severely constrained.

Q: You were the editor of "Soulkurry", an internet portal for women. What do you think are the major gender issues that India faces to elevate the current state of women so they may claim their rightful place in society?

'Soulkurry' was an internet portal which came up in the first dot com boom (2000) and collapsed in the dot com bust that followed. 'Soulkurry' tried to bring more women online and address their issues but in the last 17 years, the access of women to digital media in India is still woeful, latest figures, barely 20-25 per cent having access to any device, let alone access to digital media, which is crucial to freedom of expression, India still lags behind on the status of women in terms of all major parameters - health, education, literacy, mortality, sex ratio, violence and crimes against women and property or land rights,.

Q: You were also the editor of 'Humanscape', the niche social issues magazine. What was the pivotal role that the magazine played in dealing with social issues in general and gender issues in particular?

'Humanscape' was a very interesting magazine. It published as a monthly print till 2002. It was an important alternative voice and covered a gamut of issues, social, political, economic, environmental concerns, education, human rights etc. It managed to provide a platform for an amazing number of writers and columnists, most of whom wrote without any remuneration whatsoever. It was a truly unique space. Unfortunately, it was unable to sustain itself and had to close down, but for those who do recall its contribution to information and views, it played an invaluable role in highlighting social issues. It is important to remember the role played by several small magazines and publications in keeping the sprit of inquiry alive. 'Humanscape' was one of them.

Q:. You also coordinated the Free Speech Hub, an initiative of the respected mediawatch site The Hoot. (www.thehoot.org) to track freedom of expression in India. Until I read the website, I was under the impression that the culture of impunity is something that is unique to Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka has a legacy of unresolved murders of journalists such as the founding Editor-in-Chief of Sunday Leader Lasantha Wickrematunge and Prageeth Eknaligoda. A large number of Sri Lankan journalists fled the country to escape persecution. In an article 'Slow justice for murdered journalists', you have highlighted the state of journalists in India and the culture of impunity. How do you analyze this situation and what are the collective actions that journalists, rights activists can take to end the culture of impunity which has a negative impact on the democratic rights in general and freedom of expression in particular?

As I said earlier, the attacks emanate from three principal quarters and journalists need to call out and protest every one of these, in equal measure. Dogged pursuit of justice in each case is crucial. Today, as journalists are fragmented by their work environment which renders them extremely vulnerable, the task is more difficult. We need to forge ties with others in civil society, seek the help of lawyers and the legal system and citizens in general to protest impunity and the erosion of freedom of expression. We also need to raise awareness of the political forces that allow or encourage this culture of impunity.

Q: It seems that even after the murders of journalists, information regarding the murders has not been accessible to journalists, leading to the exploitation of the situation by political parties. You have pinpointed it in the report 'Journalist murders in regional media;' Television journalist Akhilesh Pratap Singh was shot dead in Chhatra, Jharkhand barely 24 hours later, in neighboring Bihar, Rajdeo Ranjan, Siwan bureau chief of the Hindi daily 'Hindustan', was gunned down in Siwan. This continuous spree of killings poses a serious threat to the fundamental democratic values and very notion of justice. Is India increasing becoming a dangerous territory for journalists to work in?

Yes, if one goes merely by the data, the scenario is alarming. Essentially, anyone who pushes the envelope and contours of safe and bland reportage and ventures to do any kind of investigative journalism, is in danger of attack. The complete lack of accountability by law enforcing agencies to their task of investigation of crimes and booking of perpetuators is a dangerous situation.

Q: In the same report, you have mentioned the role played by politics in creating such a dangerous atmosphere for journalists. How could these negative trends be arrested in order to improve the working condition of journalists and to ensure their safety in the line of duty?

Political parties, without exception, attack the media when they perceive it is unfavorable to them. On the other hand, political parties also have their own media vehicles or cultivate sections of the media as their own. Apart from granting advertising to favourable media houses, the state also offers sops to media-workers in terms of subsidies, housing schemes for journalists and other such favors. The working conditions of journalists need to improve in terms of their security of tenure, contractualisation must stop, collective bargaining principles must be restored to better their working conditions and they need insurance cover, training and support when they venture out to cover conflict. If media managements even acknowledge that the journalist killed in the line of duty was on their staff, instead of pretending (despite the evidence of identity cards and appointment letters) perhaps we can ensure dignity of the working journalist!

Q: One of the major areas of concerns is sensitive gender issues and media ethics. You have raised the issues of media ethics regarding the publication of a picture in 'Mumbai Mirror' under the headline "Commoditizing Tragedy?" How would you revisit the ethical and rights issues in the incident?

I think the main concern is that, with more invasive media, we need to be more conscious of how we use our power to record and report events. Of course, journalists will shoot pictures and visually capture events and transmit them in real time. We need to be much more conscious of how we do so and how those caught in the vortex of actual events will view themselves later through the media's image of them. These are ethical and philosophical questions and we need to review our practice continuously. In this particular case, the manner in which the photograph was used by this publication's excessive blowing up of the picture was totally avoidable.

Q: Media ethics is a perennial issue that questions not only the way in which one newspaper reports on a particular incident, but also the degree of objectivity that it displays in reporting and the unbiased nature of media as a whole. 'Dubious ethics in Bengaluru assault reporting, the media hypes up racism, but who will call out the racism that the 'Deccan Chronicle' and others displayed'. Bengaluru assault report is a classic case. How would you analyze the case and what are the major issues that should be dealt with regarding the manner and the content of the reporting by several newspapers?

The media must be conscious of its role and refrain from feeding into biases and prejudices. India's media hardly examines racism in Indian society, even the obsession with a fair skin, let alone towards members of the North East or the blacks. Now, with these incidents, and the exodus and attacks on the North East students, the media is forced to cover these incidents. Its coverage has been found wanting in several instances. The other problem is the race to sensationalize to get more TRPs, because of which fairness, fact-checking and accuracy are compromised.

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